Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The Entire Governmental Power"

I had some time on my hands last night, and because the Internet has everything available I decided to fulfill a long-held wish.  I knew from Roy Jeynkins biography that there existed a recording of William Gladstone.  It was actually quite easy to find; the problem is, Gladstone was standing a bit too far from the recording trumpet; despite being cleaned up and filtered and having all the digital bells and whistles applied to it, the listener has a difficult time hearing Gladstone, which is a shame. At his height, known as "The People's William", Gladstone was among the first important political figures in Britain who had the ability to attract and hold enormous crowds when he gave speeches.  The recording just doesn't give listeners any hint of this.  It doesn't help it was recorded when Gladstone was approaching eighty years old, many of the fires in his life long banked.  For all that, it was strange and wonderful to sit in my comfortable 21st century house, earbuds in my computer, and listen to one of the great statesmen of the 19th century, the many years between us disappearing in an instant.

The Internet Archive is a marvelous resource.  Holding not only the Gladstone recording, but thousands of others, I decided to do some playing around.  Finishing up a book on the First World War, I decided to check and see if there were any words from Pres. Woodrow Wilson.  His wonderful, clear baritone coming out of the buds made me realize that, having been a college professor, Wilson learned early how to speak clearly to people.

Moving on from Wilson, I thought, "Why not?" and tried Theodore Roosevelt.  With the exceptions of Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt is perhaps the one American from our somewhat distant past whose voice I have wanted to hear (Lincoln died before voice recording was invented; I tried to find one, but there seems to be no record of Twain recording his voice).  TR was  a bundle of contradictions, barely held together by his tight vest and jacket.  Short, sickly during his childhood and youth, Roosevelt overcame his physical limitations through that most vaunted of 19th century human attributes - sheer will.

Looking at photographs and considering his vigorous lifestyle, so reminiscent of another former sickly child who felt the need to prove his masculinity (Ernest Hemingway), one would think Roosevelt would have had a sonorous voice, rising and echoing from his voluminous middle.  Alas, hearing TR speak across 100 years, one hears a slightly nasal, high tenor in a sing-song cadence that is the one thing that hints at the energy its owner possessed.

There are two TR speech recordings in the Internet Archive, both from the 1912 Presidential election*.  Clicking on the first, titled "The Liberty Of The People", I was shocked and surprised by what I heard.  I knew right away I wanted to make it the subject of this post this morning, but I was afraid that taking the time to transcribe the speech would prevent that.  So, I fired up Teh Google Box and, sure enough, there are several transcripts out there (the next time someone says they can't find something on the Internet, I am more convinced than ever that must mean it just doesn't exist).  The link at the top of this paragraph takes readers to the two Roosevelt speeches.  I encourage anyone and everyone to click the link and hit the "Play" button and listen to Roosevelt speak, the time between him and us disappearing in the second or so it takes the recording to load.  Below is the transcript, found here:
The difference between Mr. Wilson and myself is fundamental. The other day in a speech at Sioux Falls, Mr. Wilson stated his position when he said that the history of government, the history of liberty, was the history of the limitation of governmental power. This is true as an academic statement of history in the past. It is not true as a statement affecting the present. It is true of the history of medieval Europe. It is not true of the history of 20th Century America. In the days when all governmental power existed exclusively in the King or in the baronage, and when the people had no shred of that power in their own hand, then it undoubtedly was true that the history of liberty was the history of the limitation of the governmental power of the outsiders who possessed that power. But today, the people have actually or potentially the entire governmental power. It is theirs to use and to exercise if they choose to use and to exercise it. It offers the only adequate instrument with which they can work for the betterment, for the uplifting, of the masses of our people. The liberty of which Mr. Wilson speaks today means merely the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. It means merely the liberty of some factory owner to work haggard women over hours for under pay and himself to pocket the proceeds. It means the liberty of the factory owner who crowds his operatives into some crazy deathtrap on a top floor, where if fire starts the slaughter is immense**. It means the liberty of the big factory owner who is conscienceless and unscrupulous, to work his men and women under conditions which eat into their lives like an acid. It means the liberty of even less conscientious factory owners to make their money out of the toil, the labor, of little children. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by Mr. Wilson. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by the limitation of governmental power. We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage- workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress; we stand for the limitation of his liberty thus to oppress those who are weaker than himself.
Few people running for office today could sum up so well, and so colorfully, what is at stake in this Presidential election one hundred years later.  Whatever else may be the differences between the Republican and Democratic visions of governance, it seems clear enough that, while the tables may have turned over the course of a century, the fundamental argument is still the same.  Roosevelt's expansive view of the role of public power to check the private abuse of power is rooted, as he makes clear, in the need to benefit the whole nation, not just "the job creators" of his (and our) time.

This shows that there really isn't anything new under the sun.  It also shows that Obama and the Democratic Party and the voters who support him stand in a long, proud tradition of some of the best America has to offer***.

*This was back when there were no restrictions other than tradition on the number of years and terms a President could hold.  TR had served out an almost complete term after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, then was re-elected on his own merits in 1904.  He was unhappy and restless as a former President, deciding to run against his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, bolting from the Republican Party to do so.  He actually outpolled Taft in '12, coming in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Because there was little distance between Roosevelt and Wilson in matters of economic policy, but huge differences in questions of civil rights and foreign policy, I've often wondered what those years would have looked like had Roosevelt managed to eke out a win.

*This is a reference to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of the year before.

***I'll save for another day criticisms of TR's war-mongering.  In this, too, he is represented by our current President.

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